9 Tips for a Truly Sustainable Camping Season
Tis the season. Spring is upon us and the outdoors are calling. If you’re anything like us, camping is your favorite springtime activity. It’s a great way to shake off the winter chill, recharge your batteries, get together with friends, and immerse yourself in nature. It’s also a great way to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. If you’ve been thinking about eco-friendly camping but not sure where to start, you’ve come to the right place. Here are a few ways Dustin and I minimize our impact when camping.
LOCATION: TRAVEL SMART
Eco-conscious camping begins with a good plan. The first thing to consider is location. Choose a place close to home and carpool to save on fossil fuels and reduce your carbon footprint. Less time driving means more time at your campsite, relaxing and enjoying nature. You can usually find a State Park, National Forest, or BLM land within a short drive from any US city. Most offer options for developed or primitive camping and the opportunity to discover new places close to home.
WASTE: AIM FOR ZERO
Packaging, it’s everywhere! There are many ways to reduce or eliminate it entirely. Dustin and I shop in bulk and store our food in reusable containers. This is particularly useful when camping because we have little or no packaging waste to carry out. If you do have packaging, open it at home and repack in reusable containers. Coffee, tea, condiments – transfer to small jars and bring only what you need.
Minimize food waste by planning meals in advance. Even better, pre-cook and freeze it. We’ve found that one-pot meals are super easy to heat up, leaving less dishes and mess, which means more free time to enjoy your camping experience. While we’re on the subject – forget single use, bring reusable dishes. Forgo paper towels, use quick-dry cloths instead. We ditched plastic water bottles a long time ago and switched to Hydro Flask insulated water bottles. Our 5-gallon reusable water jug we refill at grocery stores or friend’s houses, and most convenience stores have refilling stations.
Sharing a beer (or three) with friends around the campfire is how we roll. Tossing a growler in your cooler not only gives you good quality beer, but it eliminates the need for single use bottles and cans. Many backcountry campgrounds do not have waste facilities, so plan ahead and bring only what you need.
Challenge yourself to a zero waste backpacking trip. Read about our zero waste adventures in the backcountry.
Nothing can ruin a camping trip quicker than finding human feces at your campsite. It’s a problem we see much too often, especially in popular areas. This poses a serious health risk to humans and wildlife and pollutes the natural environments. There are many ways to properly dispose of human waste.
Use bathrooms and outhouses when available. And remember that people coming after you will be more willing to use them if they maintain a clean and sanitary condition.
Portable toilets are a great option. They allow you to pack out your waste, they can be reused, and most are convenient and easy to use. Be sure to dispose of your waste at designated areas like RV dump stations and designated vault toilets. This greatly reduces the impact on campsites and the environment.
Bury your waste. If you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’ve packed your trowel. Select a location at least 200 feet from trails, water sources and campsites, where it’s unlikely someone will walk or setup camp. Dig a “cat hole” 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter. Do your business. Cover it with dirt and disguise it with natural materials. Remember to pack out your tissue and toilet paper.
Feminine products such as tampons or pads should also be packed out. For me, menstrual cups are the way to go. There are many options, I use Diva Cup. It’s reusable and can be worn for up to 12 hours. Empty it in a cat hole for proper disposal.
CLEAN SWEEP: START FRESH
When you get to your campsite, spread out and pick up matter out of place (MOOP). Inspect your campsite for micro-trash, glass, plastics, food scraps left behind. This will ensure you have a safe camping experience, especially if you’re camping with children and pets. If there’s a fire pit, inspect it for materials that may be harmful.
CAMPFIRES: BURN RESPONSIBLY
Some people would not think of camping without a campfire. Yet, many natural areas have been degraded by overuse of fire and an increasing demand for firewood. So before you light up, follow these basic steps to make sure you burn safely and responsibly.
First things first. Make sure there are no fire restrictions in your area. Check firerestrictions.us or your state’s website.
Use an established fire ring if there is one present.
If there’s not one, choose a spot at least 15 feet away from your tent, trees, or anything flammable.
Gather stones and build a small ring to contain the fire and shield it from wind.
Purchase or collect wood locally. Do not transport wood long distances or across state lines as this poses a risk of transporting invasive species.
Check regulations on wood collection and use only dead and down wood, collected away from your campsite and no bigger than the size of your forearm. And collect a diversity of wood – softwoods ignite easily, hardwoods burn longer.
Never leave a fire unattended and make sure it’s properly extinguished - burn all wood and coals to ash and scatter the cool ashes before you leave.
Camp fires are not a garbage can. Pack out all food and trash! Do NOT burn excess food, tea bags, or coffee grounds. Even partially burned food matter attracts wildlife.
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LOCK IT UP: PROTECT WILDLIFE
Dustin and I often camp in areas with high concentrations of bears and other wildlife. We’ve even had some close encounters. Animals can become aggressive and dangerous when they’ve been exposed to human food. Always use proper food storage methods to protect wildlife and yourself.
Don’t turn your back on your food, keep it at arm’s length.
Never leave food scraps on the ground.
Use bear-resistant containers and bear-proof coolers.
Many parks offer bear boxes/lockers. Store your food, cooler, trash, dishes and toiletries in these when available.
If you don’t have access to a locker, store it in your car (as long as you’re not sleeping in it). Never leave food in your tent or in your backpack.
Many animals are attracted to toiletries, especially bears! Store it all!
For backcountry camping, string up your food by tossing a rope over a sturdy tree limb and hoisting it at least 10-15 feet above the ground. Some backcountry campsites have bear poles.
GREY WATER: TO DUMP OR NOT TO DUMP
When it comes to grey water, regulations vary from place to place. Check guidelines in the area you’re camping to learn the proper methods of disposal. We minimize grey water by swimming instead of showering (it’s more fun anyway). Wipe out your dishes and dispose of any excess food before washing to avoid attracting animals. Always use biodegradable soap. And wash yourself and your dishes at least 200 feet from any water source. Never put soap (even biodegradable), food, human or pet waste in any water source.
If dumping grey water is allowed, dump it on a plant away from your campsite. Choose a different plant each time. Bring a container for times when you can’t dump and carry it to the nearest disposal site. We have a collapsible container dedicated to grey water. You can also use a 5-gallon bucket with a cover.
PRODUCTS: KEEP IT TOXIC-FREE
Maintaining proper hygiene and keeping things sanitary is important for our health. We must be mindful of the products we use outdoors as many can be harmful to the environment and wildlife. It’s also something we can easily overlook when planning a camping trip. Always choose biodegradable, eco-friendly products.
Toothpaste – Most people brush and spit right on the ground. Many kinds of toothpaste contain toxic ingredients which can be harmful to animals and plants. Try an all-natural toothpaste like Toms.
Soap – Many soaps and shampoos also contain harsh chemicals and detergents that are harmful to the environment. Try Dr. Bronners biodegradable soaps and dish soap.
Sunscreen – Oxybenzone, a UV filtering chemical found in many brands of sunscreen, is harmful to our bodies and our waterways. Hawaii recently passed a bill banning sunscreen containing this chemical as it’s destroying coral reefs. Consider eco-friendly sunscreen next time you go camping, especially if you plan to take a dip.
Bug spray – Most insect repellents found in stores contain toxic chemicals that are bad for our health and the environment. Keeping mosquitoes away is a priority, but we should try to avoid products containing deet, which is linked to a number of neurological issues. Try making your own insect repellent with essential oils and use herbs in your campfire.
GOLDEN RULE: PACK IT OUT
Finally, Leave No Trace (Pack It In, Pack It Out). This is a no-brainer. Have respect for your fellow camper and for the environment in which we are guests. Consider the flora and fauna who call it home. Separate your trash, recycling, and compost and bring them to the nearest facilities or take it home and dispose of it there. After you pack up, do a final sweep and MOOP your campsite. Remember to always leave it better than you found it. Be stewards of the land and consider the joy of the camper or family coming behind you.
For more tips on how to enjoy our natural world in a sustainable way, visit LNT.ORG to learn about The Leave No Trace Seven Principles.
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